OLYMPIA – Washington’s about to become one of the most expensive places in America to sin, if your vices are smoking or drinking.
Shortly before 11 p.m. Friday, the state Senate by a three-vote margin approved a bill boosting “sin taxes,” raising the price of a pack of cigarettes 60 cents and the cost of a liter of liquor $1.33. Bars and restaurants would be exempt from the liquor increase.
If Gov. Christine Gregoire signs the bill into law, as expected, Washington will have the nation’s third-highest cigarette tax and the highest liquor tax, according to industry groups.
“Some things never change,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. “It’s late, it’s the dark of the night, and we’re voting on taxes.”
Democrats defended the higher taxes, saying that the state needs to pay for a responsible budget that supports education. They said the increases would steer $288 million more into public schools and the state’s colleges over the next two years. And if more people stop smoking or drinking, they said, so much the better.
“My mother died in my arms from lung cancer, her face black, her tongue sticking out,” said Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park. “If this tax raises the price to where just one young child can’t afford it and doesn’t pick up that first cigarette, it’s worth every penny of it.”
The same bill passed the state House of Representatives shortly before midnight Thursday, over the objections of Republicans. They say the state should control spending, not raise taxes.
“You can’t live within your means,” Rep. Richard Curtis, R-La Center, told Democrats. “Everyone has a program they want, a program they need.”
Some also say the higher prices will drive border-community customers into Idaho and Oregon. Idaho’s tax per pack is 57 cents. Under the change approved by lawmakers, Washington’s tax would become nearly $2.03.
“This is going to be a boon for the smuggling industry of this state,” predicted Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood.
Democrats said the taxes were as painless as possible while still raising money badly needed for schools, teacher salary increases and more slots for students in the state’s colleges.
“These are very modest tax increases targeted toward discretionary consumer purchases,” said Rep. Jim McIntire, D-Seattle.
The state is demanding more accountability and improved test scores from both students and teachers, said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina. That, he said, costs money.
“Our children’s shelf life is short,” said Rep. Shay Schual Berke, D-Normandy Park. “A third-grader is only in third grade once. If we have a great source of revenue today, I say take it today.”
Democrats bristled at Republicans’ contention that tobacco and alcohol taxes will hurt low-income families more than most.
“I don’t think this will break up families, I don’t think the Earth will be shattered,” said Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam. “These taxes that we’re talking about are discretionary. I don’t want to hear a lot about how people are suffering from this. Don’t buy the cigarettes. Don’t buy the bottles of gin.”
“Nobody likes to pay taxes, and nobody likes to vote for taxes, not even those of us you’d call ‘tax-and-spend liberals,’ ” said Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle. But taxes, she said, are the price of living in an educated, civil society.
Republicans argued that it’s wrong for government to increase its reliance on known health hazards that it’s purportedly trying to stamp out.
“I think that right now we all reek of hypocrisy,” said Rep. Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake.
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